Napoleon’s rise to power started when the British sailed their ships into the harbour at Toulon in 1793. They took control of the city and seized more than 70 French ships, almost half of the French Navy. The British were freely sailing supplies into the city and the naval base held vital strategic importance.
The French knew they had to recapture Toulon, but the current leadership was failing. Napoleon had caught the eye of some higher-ups because of a political pamphlet he'd written. He was progressive and proactive and they were looking to give him an opportunity. They named him artillery commander and tasked him with driving the British out of Toulon.
The first thing Napoleon did was look at the supplies available to him. It didn’t paint a pretty picture. The canons were pitiful. The horses were poorly trained. The men didn’t know what they were doing. There wasn’t enough gunpowder or cannon balls.
He started doing everything in his power to get better supplied. He rode back to Paris - where the government was - and told them that he needed supplies. More gunpowder, more cannons, more horses. He sent men into the countryside and nearby towns to see what they could find. He took cannons from city walls of nearby cities that weren’t in combat. He didn’t have enough ammunition, so he took control of a foundry and manufactured more ammunition himself.
The siege of Toulon was a huge victory for the French. The government saw Napoleon as a hero. Nothing was going on, they hadn't seen any big victories, and now they had one. And it was because of Napoleon. He was made a general at the age of 24 and his career took off from there.
Napoleon won because of his refusal to accept what was handed to him. Because he didn’t follow those that had come before. Because he was willing to take over a foundry to make his own ammunition. His desire to win is explained by one critical personality trait: high-agency.
What is High-Agency?
High-agency is the idea that the story given to you about what you can or cannot do is just that - a story. You have control over the story and the way you act determines how that story ends.
It's about finding a way to defeat the status quo and figure out how to get what you want, despite everyone telling you it can't be done.
The way someone responds to difficult problems is a useful proxy for how much agency they have. Napoleon could’ve accepted his lack of supplies and tried to make the best of a bad situation. He could’ve said that it wasn’t his fault for being placed in that position. He could’ve continued on the path of the failed commanders before. Instead, he decided that he wouldn’t put up with it.
The mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein describes high-agency as:
“When you’re told that something is impossible, is that the end of the conversation, or does that start a second dialogue in your mind about how to get around whoever it is that’s just told you that you can’t do something? So, how am I going to get past this bouncer who told me that I can’t come into this nightclub? How am I going to start a business when my credit is terrible and I have no experience?”
The Best Founders Have Agency in Spades
High-agency is common — almost universal — amongst great founders. Steve Jobs said that “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”
People have spoken of Jobs’ “reality distortion field” and this is really what it was. It was the ability to convince others that the world doesn’t have to work how you’ve been told it works. He believed more in his own agency — his own power to change and affect things — than he did in conventional wisdom or other people’s opinions.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who don’t believe in their own agency find themselves with very little of it. Believing you can do something doesn’t mean you can, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to do something you don’t believe you can do.
This thread from Ankur Nagpal — founder of Teachable, which was acquired for $250 million — shows examples of what it means for a startup to act with agency. He talks about the small, unscalable acts that helped him and his team land early customers.
In the thread, Ankur says: ‘Behind every startup that you think has their shit together is usually a culture of insane jugaad’.
Jugaad is an Indian term. It’s about solving problems using limited resources in innovative ways. It's about figuring out how to win when the odds are stacked against you. It’s the conversation in your head about how to get around the people that told you that you can’t do something. Jugaad is agency, and its emergence across different languages and cultures makes it worth paying attention to.
Agency is worth fostering because we need fewer people who are resigned to the status quo. We need more people who are willing to take risks and ignore people that say no. We need more boldness and questioning and craziness and disruption. We need more agency.
In part 2, we’ll look at examples of high-agency. We’ll begin to develop an intuition for identifying high-agency and fostering it yourself. Subscribe below to receive it in your inbox.